Nr XXXVI (2014)

"Człowiek w akwarium" - postępowanie z więźniami "niebezpiecznymi" w oddziałach o specjalnych zabezpieczeniach

Maria Niełaczna
Uniwersytet Warszawski

Opublikowane 2014-01-01

Słowa kluczowe

  • więźniowie,
  • praca penitencjarna,
  • maximum security units,

Jak cytować

Niełaczna, M. (2014). "Człowiek w akwarium" - postępowanie z więźniami "niebezpiecznymi" w oddziałach o specjalnych zabezpieczeniach. Archiwum Kryminologii, (XXXVI), 163–225.


Research conducted to date shows that prisoners classified as “dangerous” do not include financial offenders, white collar workers, or people convicted for causing death by dangerous driving. Prison authorities reserve this special category for prisoners convicted of crimes involving violence and/or firearms and/or crimes described by the courts in their judgements as “brutal” and indicative of psychopathic and impulsive character traits that render rehabilitation impossible. Prisoners regarded as “dangerous” include those who are unpredictable, “the worst of the worst,” those deemed depraved and impervious to rehabilitation, and those who commit further crimes and engage in risky conduct in defiance of prison rules while incarcerated (escaping, associating with opponents of the penitentiary system, refusing to obey prison guards etc.). Academic literature and reports from prison guard organizations show that super-maximum (supermax) facilities enable inmates described as highly predatory and destructive to prison order and management to be handled. However, the same sources point out the negative side effects of the high economic, legal and moral costs of maintaining these facilities and managing their inmates. Prison populations have always had aggressive and “hard to manage” individuals, but the idea of managing them separately did not occur until the 20th century.

Criminological studies provide the criteria for identifying risk and the methodology for assessing it. These have enabled the key concept of “serious threat to social security or to the security of the penal facility” to be understood. This is the only circumstance under which a prisoner should be classified as “dangerous.” There are two aspects of what “serious threat” means. On the one hand, the phrase denotes those factors that depend on the convict and which the convict can control and modify. On the other hand, it denotes those factors that depend entirely on the measures adopted by the prison authorities who implement and shape them. These range from ensuring an appropriate prison environment to employing user-friendly management and control methods. The responsibility for attenuating risks does not rest solely on the prisoners, but also, if not primarily, on the correctional officers and the system they create. That a prisoner is incorrigible is no justification for labelling him “dangerous” and keeping him in isolation and maximum security for the duration of his sentence. The machinery of the state, with all its experts, academic and practical knowledge and a budget to fund it all, has to be more knowing and better equipped than an individual prisoner, who only has unstable emotions and weak self-control mechanisms at his disposal and/or is bent on self-destruction. When the state fails to offer a solution acceptable to all parties that have an interest in the “dangerous” status, then it is weak and will remain so. As such, it is incapable of protecting its officials and the public from violent individuals.

Research I conducted in 2012-2013 reveals that the systemic problems in dealing with this particular category of prisoner are tied in with questions regarding restrictions on personal freedom, protection from arbitrary, and consequently inhumane, treatment, and the limits of administrative discretion. One persistent systemic problem is that decisions to extend “dangerous” status, which should normally be assigned for as short a time as possible and only when necessary to protect other constitutional values (Article 31 Section 1), are justified formulaically. Prison authorities fail to prove that prisoners are likely to behave in a way that could pose a serious threat to the security of the public or the prison. Their justifications mask their real reasons for extending isolation time in designated units and present no facts either for and against. This is a sign that the state is acting arbitrarily. My research also reveals that the protection of “dangerous” prisoners on the part of the courts is weak. In fact, the courts are failing to effectively protect their basic rights. This is particularly important, as it turned out that prisoners were kept in maximum security facilities for an average of three years, which is emphatically not “as short a time as possible” and is considerably longer than the 12 months specified in the General Director s Order of 5 June 2012.

Maximum security units and having “dangerous” prisoners managed separately are intended to ensure that the community inside and outside the prison is safe. The conditions in these special units shape the range and kinds of options for managing “dangerous” prisoners and containing the real and potential threats they pose. The theoretical and practical options are limited to a minimum, while strictly specified security procedures do not allow prisoner management to be adjusted for the kind of threat, the level of risk or the extent to which a prisoner is “dangerous.”

The conspicuous isolation of maximum security units, the hermetically sealed space with constant electronic surveillance, the reporting and security procedures, the strained atmosphere where people only ever come together for formal interactions, and the limited number of personnel with authorized access to these units are redolent of a fish tank. This analogy should help people understand and almost experience how it feels when a natural human environment is replaced with an unnatural one. The restricted living space in a fish tank can be easily controlled, while water slows down impulsive movements and neutralizes, or at least weakens, any dangerous outbursts that might occur. This artificial and hermetic environment has a deleterious effect on human beings. When deprived of oxygen, our brains die, along with some aspects of our functioning. In the case of “dangerous” prisoners, the role of oxygen is played by having a modicum of autonomy to alleviate their sense of powerlessness and some influence over their “dangerous” status, but most of all, connection with other people - some form of social contact. My research concludes that these are all systemic mistakes in managing “dangerous” prisoners that have yet to be rectified. Despite the good living conditions in the designated units and the efforts undertaken by prison staff, who are on the front line working with this difficult category of prisoner, there is no framework for properly assigning the status of “dangerous”.


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